Despite a lackluster free-agent haul following the retirement of Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers are expected to be among the most viable suitors for free agent Russell Westbrook next summer. Among the top players in the NBA, the Oklahoma City Thunder star will command a maximum contract with the salary cap expected to reach about $102 million.
The Lakers, desperate to return to their winning ways after missing out on the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, are in need of at least one splash signing, particularly after missing out on the Toronto Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan this summer. In January, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith intimated that Westbrook and his then-Thunder teammate Kevin Durant, had at least some interest in playing for the Lakers.
While Durant has moved on to the Golden State Warriors, Westbrook seems stranded in Oklahoma and doesn't seem itching to sign a contract extension. The former UCLA Bruin could be swayed to return to his hometown, with the Lakers boasting some promising young players like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft Brandon Ingram.
But it begs the question, under next year’s salary cap, can the Lakers even afford to bring Westbrook on when his contract expires?
Though Los Angeles has committed $17.6 million to Luol Deng and $15.6 million to Timofey Mozgov for 2017-18, there is still plenty of room to land Westbrook, who could receive about $120 million over four years.
According to Spotrac, the Lakers have $76 million in active contracts, with cap max space of $25.3 million. That number could change in the Lakers’ favor if the front office makes more roster moves. Nick Young ($5.6 million in 2017-18) and seldom-used Anthony Brown ($1.01 million in 2017-18) don’t figure into the Lakers’ long-term plans. Meanwhile, Louis Williams will be in the final year of his contract that pays him $7 million a year, and expiring contracts are often easy to trade.
Westbrook, who will make $17.7 million next season, will be joined by Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose on the free-agent market. The Lakers will likely pursue Westbrook more than any other player, even though the team currently lacks star power in the frontcourt.
Applying fivethirtyeight.com's CARMELO aglorithm, signing Westbrook would be a steal. It projects that over a five-year period, he will produce $344 million in value. That’s below Curry's $404 million valuation, but above LeBron James' $309 million.
There’s been plenty of reasons to pan such a move, both for the Lakers and the Thunder. The Lakers may have to give up too much, including their last two No. 2 overall selections in point guard Russell and Ingram on top of valuable draft picks they really can’t afford to surrender after the worst seasons in franchise history.
Same goes for the Thunder, who at least in the short term won’t be able to secure a trade package equal to that of the 27-year-old Westbrook’s mammoth value. The electric scorer is also a deft passer and rebounder capable of putting up a triple-double almost every night, and nearly dragged the Thunder into the postseason in the ever-loaded Western Conference two years ago when Durant missed most of the season with a foot injury.
But from a salary cap standpoint, the Lakers are one of the few teams who can slap together a reasonable bunch of young cheap players for a sign-and-trade deal, as well as veterans with reasonable contracts, and the requisite cap space to accommodate Westbrook’s current and future salaries in the seasons to come.
Westbrook’s about to enter the ninth season of his career, which under the current collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league means he can sign a maximum-level contract worth up to 30 percent of a team’s salary cap. That translates to between $26 million and $27 million in the first year of any new deal Westbrook signs in 2017.
With Los Angeles currently owning roughly that much space, and likely willing to part with players like Williams, Young, and Randle in order to make the contracts match in a potential swap with the Thunder, a deal is possible at some point in the future.
However, it’s important to keep in mind, the Thunder and general manager Sam Presti are one of the best-run front offices in the league and they won’t simply jump at the first deal that comes their way. It’s likely this potential trade process is drawn out to further drive Westbrook’s already high price or until Presti is 100 percent certain Westbrook intends to leave Oklahoma City.